Everything that’s wrong with Starbucks is everything that’s right. What’s wrong is its homogenous look-alike stores, offering a limited menu, mainly coffee. What’s right is its homogenous look-alike stores, offering a limited menu, mainly coffee. In other words, depending on your point of view, Starbucks is either the big bad wolf that forces small independent coffee shops to bend under the weight of the mega barista, or it’s a company that offers a consistent cup of quality coffee in a predictably clean and well-designed environment.

In Howard Shultz’s second book adorning the Starbucks’ label, ‘Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul,’ the retired CEO returns in 2008 as head of the company to praise the legacy he worked so hard to create and to rectify the downward spiral that sent its stock plummeting. Beginning with internal changes, Shultz pieced together a new and improved Starbucks, and within 18 months turned the company around. Many innovations that were incorporated during these hard economic times stem from Shultz’s high energy and unwillingness to give into failure. He began by closing all of the U.S. company-owned stores for three hours on February 26, 2008, to retrain baristas on espresso preparation, a move that helped them perfect the art of making espresso but also cost Starbucks millions of dollars. Shultz also decided to create a bold universal blend, Pike Place, not quite as potent as Italian or French roast, to accommodate a more general customer. Along with Pike Place, a brand of instant coffee called VIA began gracing the stores. Horrors! Instant coffee at Starbucks? While many a skeptic within the company warned Shultz not to go down that dark road, Shultz believed in VIA, followed his intuition, and before long VIA became and continues to be a great success. In short, Shultz saw good business practice in improving old ideas and continually developing new ones, including Starbucks’ humanitarian efforts. A visit to Rwanda prompted Shultz to further support the small farmer with educational programs and larger loans. After meeting with U2 frontman and activist Bono and (RED), the organization he helped found that raises awareness and funds to fight AIDS in Africa, every transaction with a Starbucks card generates money for the Global Fund, the recipient of (RED) monies, to invest in HIV and AIDS programs. Millions of dollars have been spent in support of youth and literacy programs, environmental awareness, and aid for victims of disasters. And the list goes on.


The Starbucks’ skeptic, on the other hand, may view a company that owns and operates over 16,000 stores in 54 countries as a monopoly that erases a part of the American spirit — diversity. Why dominate the coffee market? Shultz would be quick to answer with a quote he wrote in ‘Onward’: ‘Coffee … will always bring people together … Coffee will forever connect.’

While reading the book, I wanted to learn directly from a Starbucks employee about that connection and excitement Shultz seems to create in his ‘partners’ (Starbucks’ employees). But the Starbucks media department, from whom I was required to get permission to talk to our local Truckee Starbucks manager, denied an interview. A bit of big brother, don’t you think? I’m somewhere in the middle on the big vs. small coffee controversy. On the rare occasion when I buy coffee outside my home I support local and independently owned coffee shops. When I’m traveling, however, I’m thrilled to see the green mermaid sign greet me at airports or in big cities where I don’t know the lay of the java land (although I prefer to find local espresso shops).

So, it gets back to the question: Is Starbucks the big bad wolf or the philanthropic barista? When I read Shultz’s definition of Starbucks’ value, I felt torn: ‘Behind every cup of Starbucks is the world’s highest-quality, ethically sourced coffee beans; baristas with health-care coverage and stock in the company; farmers who are treated fairly and humanely; a mission to treat all people with respect and dignity; and passionate coffee experts whose knowledge about coffee cannot be matched by any other coffee company.’ How does one argue against that? But then again, how does one watch the small business owner endure all that huffing and puffing that eventually blows his store down? From either perspective, ‘Onward’ is an illuminating book. It shows one man’s passion for his company and his determination to fight for its soul.

~ What do you think of Starbucks? Comment on this column below.


  • Eve Quesnel

    Eve Quesnel has lived in Truckee for 35 years with her husband Bill, once-upon-a-time daughter Kim-now on her own-and many dogs through the years, currently a Border Collie-Aussi mix. Her favorite pastimes include walking in her neighborhood and nearby woods, hiking in the high Sierra, and reading and writing. Quesnel is now retired from teaching English at Sierra College in Truckee but continues to pursue several writing projects. She is intrigued by the natural world of which she explores and writes about for the column "Nature's Corner" in Moonshine Ink.

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